written by: Jenny Griffin•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 2/13/2012
African Grey Parrots are highly sought-after pets due to their high level of intelligence and ability to mimic human speech. But with the increasing demand for captive African Greys for the pet trade, will there be enough left in the wild to sustain their natural population?
The African Grey parrot is divided into two subspecies: the Timneh African Grey and the Congo African Grey parrot. Both have slate gray feathers, yellow eyes, a reddish tail. The African Grey Congo parrot averages 12.8 inches in length, has a bright red tail (visible in the image on the left) and a large curved black beak. The Timneh is about an inch smaller and has a dark maroon colored tail and a horn colored upper beak with a black tip (as seen in the bird on the right).
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Habitat & Distribution
As the name implies, the African Grey parrot is endemic to Africa, with their native range extending across 23 countries in Western and Central Africa. They are found predominantly in lowland areas (up to a maximum altitude of 7200 feet). They favor dense forest biomes, but can also be found along forest edges, in wooded savanna, mangroves and in cultivated land.
African Grey parrots are diurnal and during the day can often be found foraging in the tops of trees in groups of around 30 birds. They eat a diet of seeds, berries, nuts and fruit.
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While African Grey parrots are gregarious, forming large communal roosts of up to 10,000 birds, they are monogamous birds who form strong pair-bonds and mate for life. They reach sexual maturity at around 3-4 years of ages, and begin nest prospecting at the beginning of the breeding season, which varies depending on locality, but is typically during the dry season. Nesting in tree cavities high up off the ground, they lay clutches of up to five eggs. The female begins incubating the eggs after the second egg is laid and incubation lasts about 26-28 days. The chicks fledge when around 10 weeks old, but the parents continue to feed them for at least four to five weeks after they have fledged. The lifespan of an African Grey parrot is approximately 65-70 years.
African Grey parrots possess an extraordinary level of intelligence. Research conducted by Dr Irene Pepperberg using Alex, a captive African Grey, showed that this now famous parrot had more than 100 vocal labels for objects, colors and actions. He could count up to six and understood the concept of the number zero. According to Dr Pepperberg, African Greys have an intelligence comparable to a five year old child, and the emotional development of a two or three year old child. Her research revealed that these birds have similar abilities to marine mammals and primates.
African Greys communicate both vocally and using body language. Understanding African Grey behavior will help an owner understand them better.
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African Grey parrots are one of the most commonly traded species of wild birds. People favor these parrots as pets because of their high rate of intelligence and ability to mimic many human sounds. According to BirdLife International, there are approximately 680,000 to 13 million wild African Greys worldwide, with 21 percent of this population harvested each year. From 1994 to 2003, over 359,00 wild birds were caught and exported.
The problem does not end there. Once the birds are captured they are transported in appalling conditions in inferior crates, and are held in poor quarantine facilities, if they are quarantined at all, and as a result many captured birds do not survive or even make their destination. A recent case was the loss of 750 wild caught African Grey parrots that died on an internal flight within South Africa after being imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for breeding purposes. The wild breeding stock are imported to produce eggs, which are artificially incubated, and the chicks hand-raised and sold on the pet bird market. Sometimes wild caught birds are sold directly to the pet market and as they are not habituated to humans, they suffer extreme stress, exhibiting unsocial behavior such as growling when approached by humans. This is not surprising considering the trauma they have suffered during capture, transportation and removal from their familiar wild surroundings to being placed in captivity far removed from their natural habitats. They often associate humans with a bad experience, and as these are highly intelligent birds, they do not easily forget this experience. Considering the large number of captive bred African Grey parrots available on the market, it should not be necessary to plunder wild stocks to supply the pet trade, either for individual pet birds or breeding stock.
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Trapping of wild birds to sustain the demand in the pet bird trade, coupled with habitat loss due to deforestation, are the two main reasons for the decline of African Grey parrots in the wild. In an effort to combat this, trade restrictions have been implemented to keep parrots in trees—not just in cages. African Greys are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and a permit issued by a national authority is required for the export of wild caught African Greys. While this does offer some level of control in the legitimate trade of threatened species, illegal trafficking and smuggling of wildlife will always be a problem. African Grey parrots are currently listed as near threatened on the 2010 IUCN Red Data List. However, as estimates of the rate of their population decline are conservative, and very likely out of date, more up to date information may reveal that they qualify for Vulnerable or even Endangered Status. When looking at their rate of decline over a longer period of time, should the data show that the population is dropping at a rate of more than 30% over three generations, this would entitle them to an upgrade in conservation status as per IUCN criteria.
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African Greys are intelligent, they are excellent talkers, and they make wonderful companion birds. As a result, there is a high demand for these birds as pets. The trade in wild caught birds to supply breeders so that they can keep up with this demand is having dire consequences on wild populations.
BirdLife International 2008. Psittacus erithacus. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 03 May 2011.
Pepperberg, I. M. "Studies to determine the intelligence of African grey parrots." In: Proceedings of the International Aviculturists Society: 11-15. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Jan 1995: http://www.funnyfarmexotics.com/IAS/grey_al.htm
Schmid, Rachel. The influence of the breeding method on the behaviour of adult African grey parrots. Doctoral Thesis, 2004: http://www.charlieandpeggy.com/thesis_greys.pdf